Book Review: FRAMED! A T.O.A.S.T Mystery

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery, by James Ponti (2016)

For anyone actively engaged with children’s literature and Young Adult fiction like me, the challenge isn’t in finding the good, but in keeping up with all that is good (and great). I am constantly amazed at the high quality of the books that come across my desk, and marvel at what a Golden Age this is for the medium.

Case in point – Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery by James Ponti. I approached this book with trepidation, expecting just another juvenile mystery in the Hardy Boys vein. What I found instead was a novel that is smart, beautifully constructed, and often screamingly funny. Framed! ranks as one of the best books I’ve read this year – either for adults or young readers.

Framed! is all about Florian Bates, a 12-year-old who recently moved to Washington, DC, with his art conservator mother and museum-security specialist father. Bates is an extraordinary boy in that he has an uncanny knack for noticing things, and making educated suppositions based on tiny facts. He calls his method TOAST, or the Theory Of All Small Things.

He meets his neighbor, Margaret, and promises to teach her the TOAST technique. She is a more than adept pupil, and is quickly matching Florian deduction-for-deduction. While providing her with TOAST training at DC’s National Gallery, their observations lead them to believe that something shifty is afoot. When key Impressionist paintings are stolen from the museum, his deductions bring him to the attention of the FBI, who, realizing themselves how outlandish it all is, bring Florian onto the case.

Framed! often reads like a Young Adult version of the popular series Sherlock; and it shares with that series an almost beatific regard for the lead’s deductive powers, and the comedic interplay between the lead characters. Author Ponti really makes the entire notion of TOAST come alive. It is essentially a riff on Sherlock Holmes’ famed powers of observation and deduction, but Ponti makes a point of walking us through Florian’s mental gymnastics as they occur, rather than explaining afterwards. It is an effective twist.

The novel begins with Florian kidnapped by the Romanian mafia, and then trying to remember the lessons of his hostage survival course provided by the FBI. When he comes face to face with the criminal kingpin, Florian makes another key deduction, which then leads to a book-long flashback explaining how he got into this fix.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the book is Ponti’s regard for Florian’s intellectual prowess. There are many (many!) books where young protagonists rely upon magic or science fictional ideas to succeed; Florian is a creature of the mind and exults in his intelligence. More, please!

One minor quibble, not that any of the younger readers would make note, is that in Ponti’s world, the FBI is a benevolent entity filled with agents of real integrity who are focused on justice, rather than a highly politicized entity spying on innocent Americans. Given a tracking chip by the bureau (with a promise never to spy on him), I feared that young Florian would grow up to spend his adulthood in hiding with Edward Snowden

But real-life disappointments have little to do with this marvelously realized book. It is fabulously addictive from the very opening. For example, here is Florian talking to his Romanian kidnapper (with a very uncertain grasp of English) while trying to ply his hostage training:

Survival Step 1 – Disrupt Your Captor’s Train of Thought

“Do you mean ‘not wrong’ as in I’m not wrong in what I’m saying? Or ‘not wrong’ as in you’re not wrong in whom you kidnapped?”

I waited for a response, but all I heard was a low, frustrated growl. I assumed this was his deep-thinking noise.

“If you don’t use pronouns, it really makes the conversation hard to follow. You need to say ‘You’re not wrong’ or ‘I’m not wrong.’ Especially in a situation like this with threats and demands. The wrong pronoun could have someone else ending up with your ransom money, and that wouldn’t be good for either one of us.”

“Not wrong!” he barked again as if saying it louder suddenly solved the grammar issues. Just then he swerved to avoid another car, blasted his horn, and yelled what I assumed were choice Romanian curse words. I figured he was distracted enough for me to start inching toward my backpack.

“Don’t feel bad,” I continued. “I understand how hard it is to learn a new language. My family moves all the time. I’ve had to learn French and Italian. It’s molto difficile. That’s Italian for ‘very difficult.’”

“Stop talk!”

“That’s a perfect example of what I mean. You said ‘stop talk’ but it should be ‘stop talking.’ English is so complicated. But let’s forget about grammar and get back to you kidnapping the wrong person. Like I said, it’s an easy mistake and easy to fix. If you let me go, I promise not to tell anyone. Just drop me off at the nearest Metro station.”

“Shut mouth or else!”

The “or else” was ominous, and combined with the continued lack of pronouns it reminded me of the third step from my training.

Survival Step 2 – Do Not Antagonize Your Captor

(When I told Margaret about the steps, she couldn’t believe this wasn’t first.)

This is a delightful book and comes highly recommended.

Some Tutor Tips! Part 2

Take notes

A lot can happen in a week’s time, so remembering what progress was made during your last session might take some strong recall. That’s why we suggest taking notes at the end of each meeting. What content did you cover? Did you make any strides towards a goal? What should the learner be practicing at home? These short notes will help you remember what transpired during the tutoring session, and will help you review what you want to cover at the next session.

Find your Learners preferred method of learning

We all take in the world in different ways. Some of us like to have visuals, some like to hear what we must do, and others are more hands on. This applies to you and your learner! If they’re a visual learner, write down what they say and read over and over with them. Perhaps they would like to record your voice and listen to it later. Interactive games are a great way to reinforce new information. Finding out how your learner best takes in information will help you create lessons that fit their style, helping them reach their goals.

Visit the Literacy Offices or our YouTube channel for more resources and helpful tips.

Book Review: The Little Wizard Stories of Oz

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

The Little Wizard Stories of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1914)

Here are my thoughts on the only collection of short stories in the original Wizard of Oz series, Little Wizard Stories of Oz, written in 1913 by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) and collected in 1914, with illustrations by the greatest of the Oz artists, John R. Neill (1877-1943).

The stories were conceived by Baum and his publisher, Reilly & Britton, and were intended for publication in little booklets for each story (each costing 15 cents). The Oz books were traditionally written for middle readers – ‘tweens,’ in today’s lexicon – while these short stories were created for very young readers. Baum and company hoped to generate interest in Oz at a very early age, and continue to promote Baum and all of his books into a brand name for kiddie lit.

Because of the younger audience, Baum tones down a bit of the irony and pun-play found in his longer books, and the plots are significantly less intricate. But taken on a level of simple fun and games in the land of Oz, these stories are unbeatable.

There are six stories in the book, with three of them being particularly charming. In The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, both big cats are bored standing guard at the throne of Ozma, princess of Oz. The Hungry Tiger would particularly like to eat a little baby, while the Cowardly Lion is eager to maul some innocent. They leave the castle and promptly come upon a lost baby and, later, the distraught mother – both ripe for consuming and mauling. The self-deceptions they use to avoid creating mayhem are hilarious, and very human.

Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse shows two of our favorite characters from the later novels work together to save a boy lost in the forests of Oz. This is particularly grand because Baum always tried to work out the absurdities of Oz to their most logical conclusions…. For example, since neither Jack nor the Sawhorse sleep, when night comes, they simply stand by the side of the road till daylight. (A somewhat disquieting image.)  And when Jack’s pumpkin head is spoiled, he must go headless until he gets back home. There is more than enough to delight any child with a sense of whimsy here.

The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman features, perhaps, the two most famous characters in the series. When the two friends go boating, the Tin Man falls overboard. He lies at the bottom of the riverbed, his tin stuck in the soft earth. The Scarecrow would save him, but his straw would not allow him to submerge. The two finally escape with the help of some low comedy crows, but things get significantly better when the Wizard himself shows up.

The other stories, Little Dorothy and Toto, Tiktok and the Nome King and Ozma and the Little Wizard are all fine, and worthy of attention.

The book is available online, but can also be gotten in a low-cost hardcover reprint from Books of Wonder, complete with the original illustrations. Their Web site is: For the Oz completest, or to introduce younger readers to the world Oz, it makes for amusing reading.

Book Review: The Night Gardener

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

There are so many great picture books for children and adults alike that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. But there are a few standouts that demand particular attention, and here is one you should know about.

One of the most original and delightful books to cross our desk this season is The Night Gardener, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan.  These extremely talented brothers are Ontario-based writers and illustrators, and The Night Gardener is their best book to date.

The story tells of life on Grimloch Lane.  Life continues apace, without much interesting seeming to happen.  Young William notices, though, a mysterious gardener steal by one night, a gardener who transforms an ordinary tree into a magnificent topiary sculpture of an owl.  The neighborhood falls agape with wonder … and the mysterious gardener continues to ply his trade, leaving these amazing wood-and-leaf sculptures in his wake.

William, of course, promises to stay up one night and catch him in the act…

There is so much going on in The Night Gardener that adults will delight in unpacking the story as much as children.  The evocative illustrations for this book were rendered in graphite, and then digitally colored.  Fortunately, the Fan Brothers exercised as much restraint in the coloration process as they did with their drawings.

Grimloch Lane in the early pages of the book is a fairly gray, monochromatic place.  As the Night Gardener creates more and more topiary art, the pages slowly and subtly infuse with color, reaching a full, rich coloration at the end.  But this is never used to cheap effect; indeed, illustrations that take place in moonlight are just as mysterious and creamy as they are subdued. 

The drawings themselves have a great deal of charm; they are mindful, in their way, of the pen-and-ink work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000).  But where Gorey was macabre and mordant, the Fan Brothers are more mysterious and insinuating.  The brothers have a happy knack of composition, and the drawings are filled with witty details that catch the eye. 

Any attentive reader paging through the book will, again and again, return to the word ‘subtle.’  We are told very little about William, but there is a picture of his parents on his windowsill.  We never learn anything about them, and it was not until my second page-through that I noticed that the building he leaves at one point is an orphanage.  And our gardener seems to sculpt his animals based on whatever animals happen to be in the neighborhood.  And who are the mustached, hat-wearing twins in nearly every group drawing?  Could it be the Fan Brothers, themselves?

But just as interesting as the illustrations are, the story is even more compelling.  Are the Fan Brothers offering a parable on the affect that art has upon us, or a story of transferring intergenerational expertise?  Is it about the soul-crushing effects of ugly neighborhoods and urban blight, or about the restorative effects of engaging in the arts?  Is it a meditation on seasonal changes, or a commentary on created families?

This is a book with no easy answers, but many earned pleasures.  The Night Gardener is sure to intrigue both children and adults with its subtle drawings, evocative narrative, and hidden clues.  A gem!

To purchase your own copy of The Night Gardener you can find them online here and here.

Some Tutor Tips! Part 1

Update your Learner’s goals

It is critical to check in with your learner periodically to go over their goals. Asking questions to find out what changes they are trying to make in the real world will help your formulate your lesson plans and content. Have you been with your learner for a while? Maybe it is time to reevaluate their goals. All of us have changing and new goals throughout different phases of our lives. Checking in every once in a while helps everyone to make sure we are still headed in the most beneficial direction.

Build a timeline together

Building achievable goals within realistic timelines will set you and your learner up for success. Together you can build a realistic schedule to achieve milestones. It could be finishing a book within one month, filling out a job application before the holiday weekend, or scheduling a meeting with their child’s teacher within the week. Break up larger goals into shorter ones to keep the momentum alive.

It is also important to keep goals flexible! Life throws us all kinds of strange curveballs (the last two years have shown us that), so it is vital that we are kind to ourselves when setting expectations.

Visit the Literacy Offices or our YouTube channel for more resources and helpful tips!

Learner Writing: Dream


By: Nancy Hsun-Hui Wu

I like children, so I teach Chinese at a Yulin Chinese school. The children are innocent, lively, and cute. When I see their progress in learning Chinese. I’m filled with happiness!

I hope my students can use Chinese and English more to make friends from Taiwan. I hope that students can get to know their friends by writing letters to their pen pals. Nowadays, computers and electronics are so developed that people rarely write letters.

So I hope that through this course, the children on both sides can improve their second language learning and make good friends from different countries. Of course, I hope my English can improve to help the children on both sides.

The library Literacy program is very good, very helpful to my English study. I want to get feedback. I hope I can volunteer in the library to teach children Chinese and meet friends from my country. I hope my dreams can come true!

Find Nancy’s writing soon in our Fall 2021 Book of Writings: Grow Anytime, Anywhere!

Suggested Reading: The Westing Game

This month the Central Library Literacy Book Club has decided to challenge themselves with an award winning mystery novel, The Westing Game! This clue-riddled book was written by Ellen Raskin and published in 1978. The Westing Game has had a place on our library’s bookshelves ever since!

A bit about the book’s plot: “Sunset Towers is a new apartment building on Lake Michigan, north of Milwaukee and just down the shore from the mansion owned by reclusive self-made millionaire Samuel W. Westing. (Despite its name, Sunset Towers faces east – into the sunrise.) Sam Westing was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in paper products. He was very patriotic and never smoked, drank, or gambled.

As the story opens, Barney Northrup is selling apartments to a carefully selected group of tenants. After Sam Westing dies, at the beginning of the book, it emerges that most of the tenants are named as heirs in Westing’s will. The will is structured like a puzzle, with the 16 heirs challenged to find the solution. In the will it states that one of his heirs has taken his life. Each of the eight pairs, assigned seemingly at random, is given $10,000 cash and a different set of baffling clues. The pair that solves the mystery of his death will inherit Westing’s entire $200 million fortune and control of his company.”

If you would like more information about Ellen Raskin, her interesting real life inspiration for this work, and a few (major) spoilers, take a look at this incredible comprehensive review from The New Yorker.

Now try your hand at putting these tantalizing puzzle pieces together to figure out who the killer is and who will become the heir to the Westing fortune! Read along with our learners by getting your own copy from the Library Catalog today! And don’t forget to come back and tell us what you thought!

Success! Wine & Words 2022 w/ Kaira Rouda

By: Brittany Laurin-Boland

                We had another wonderful Wine & Words event this year, making eight successful years of fundraising to support Literacy Volunteers at HBPL. On January 22nd of this year, community members gathered for our first virtual Wine & Words to listen to accomplished writer Kaira Rouda answer questions about her incredible life and her latest book, “Somebody’s Home.” The auction that accompanied the night was filled with unique items donated by local businesses and volunteers, and of course, wine, plenty of wine.

                The night started with host Bob Madison, leading a charming repartee with Mrs. Kaira Rouda. She spoke candidly about her life and education that lead to a successful writing career. She also graced attendees by reading an excerpt from her latest suspense novel, “Somebody’s Home.”  Board Member, Kristen Bitgood, had this to say, “The host was extremely engaging and lead a dynamic interview that really helped me know Kaira Rhouda and get excited for her upcoming books.” We thank Kaira for spending the time to share with us her life’s work and to support the effort to spread adult literacy throughout Southern California.

                Throughout the week leading up to the Wine & Words night, people were invited to bid on items generously donated by the community. There were unique and entertaining prizes; A stay in Sedona, spa gift cards, Gulfstream Flight Simulator, wine, and more! We had many excited winners! We are grateful to each and every person who bid on items and donated to Literacy Volunteers – HBPL.

                This successful night, with donations coming in from both the auction and Mrs. Rouda’s interview, allows the staff at the Literacy office to continue to support the growth of literacy amongst adults within the Huntington Beach community and beyond. New materials for tutor training, citizenship classes, English books, and more, can now be purchased because of the generosity of the community, the donators, and Kaira Rouda. Thank you to all who support our mission.

                If you would like to learn more about Mrs. Kaira Rouda and her incredible body of work, visit her website If you are interested in purchasing her latest work, “Somebody’s Home” or any of her other thrilling books please visit And finally, if you would like to support adult literacy in your community please consider donating here.

                Thank you for a wonderful night and we hope to see you in person next year for our 2023 Wine & Words.

– Literacy Volunteers Staff

My First House Flip

By: Kim Doan

I recently took on a project I always wanted to do, but I did not know I’d be doing it during the time of Covid. In only 10 minutes, I decided to purchase a house, remodel, and flip it. 

I started to work on the house the day I signed the papers. In a very short time, I set up the demo crew to work inside changing the floor plan and cleaning up the garden. I was so excited! I became the general contractor, I had to hire people to do different jobs like plumbing, electrical, tile, woodwork, walls, paint, windows, doors, and glass. I got some contractors’ phone numbers from my sister. I had to learn a lot of new terms and city building codes.

Of course I worked there myself every single day from 7:30am to 8 or 10pm on the roll for over three months, and I did as much of the work as I could myself. Covid made everything much harder, because prices increased, shipping was delayed, items were out of stock, and everyone had to wear masks.

I custom-designed all the bathrooms, the kitchen, and two fireplaces. I had the trees removed from the front of my house and made new landscape, and my sister and I staged it ourselves.

 Finally, after a lot of hard work, and a lot of expense, the house was ready to put on the market, and it was a big relief after all my long days of tough work. I was very proud of it!

I had two offers in two days, both over asking price and the sale closed within a month. Even though it was laborious and dirty work, I loved it! I’ll do it again when I have a chance.